Self-Help Prescription: A Double Dose of Culture

Status Anxiety, by Alain de Botton. Pantheon, 306 pages, $24.

Alain de Botton approaches every subject like it’s virgin territory. At first this, can be disorienting: Am I reading a book, or grading the essay portion of the SAT? After a while, though, it gets a little

sad, like watching Vasco da Gama plant a flag in Times Square.

Can he really believe he’s the first on the scene? Like fellow moral nutritionist and Great Books drone Jedediah Purdy, Mr. de Botton limits himself to personal observation and the timeless masterworks of Western Civ. As for sociology, anthropology, psychology, economic theory-if it’s not Marcus Aurelius, Proust or Kant, out with the bathwater! What’s left is Mr. de Botton himself, a crateful of Harvard Classics and an audience he insists on treating like rapt children.

In book after book (he’s now on No. 7), he selects literary masterworks, pumps them up into highbrow fetish objects, then inserts them into a middlebrow self-help narrative. To a certain reader, it’s enormously flattering to believe Proust, like yoga or Atkins, can change your life. And in one way, at least, the idea has worked like a charm: As his Web site boasts, “De Botton’s works have been bestsellers-selling in the many hundreds of thousands in many different territories over the last eleven years.”

In the formula’s latest iteration, Status Anxiety , Mr. de Botton argues that the progress of the 20th century was towards open revolt against inherited privilege and nepotism. This placed upon us the enormous burden of self-making, while endowing success-most commonly in the form of financial triumph-with a new quality of moral superiority. And if success in a culture without birthright is deserved, so too is failure, which signals a lack of virtue or insufficient mettle. The net effect is that social esteem is poorly distributed-it gravitates too easily towards the shallow and the meretricious-while low social self-esteem, the sneaking suspicion the world finds you drab, becomes almost universal.

Status anxiety is abetted, Mr. de Botton tells us, by an advertising regime that convinces us we need better and more stuff, and by profile journalism, which reminds us how far short we’ve fallen of the celebrity ideal. Perversely, economic growth brings with it a decline in psychic well-being. “A sharp decline in actual deprivation,” he writes, “may, paradoxically, have been accompanied by an ongoing and even escalating sense or fear of deprivation.”

(For a far more elegant and original general-interest account of the plight of the middle classes, in almost precisely these same terms, see Barbara Ehrenreich’s Fear of Falling . For a far more nuanced and challenging account, try, if you dare, le maître penseur Français , Pierre Bourdieu and his high-theory classic, Distinction .)

Meanwhile Mr. de Botton has rehashed-without citation-a century of academic and pop sociology. To support his argument, however, he makes a bold move. He declares that our need for status is “the story of our quest for love from the world.” No doubt many C.E.O.’s and rock stars are, beneath it all, damaged children whose craving for public adulation is a tragic necessity. But is all status-mongering really the quest for love? Isn’t it sometimes relief-seeking from the bite of envy? Or the need for symbolic power? Or plain greed? By recasting the argument in terms of love, Mr. de Botton gets to cozen his readers under the guise of reproving them. Like the deluxe guru he is, he’s saying: Don’t worry, you aren’t shallow for wanting a 7 Series B.M.W. or to walk away with the Palme d’Or. You are the deprived child, and what you really want is beautiful and exalted.

The second half of Status Anxiety is devoted to “Solutions,” as Mr. de Botton calls them, or the use of the Great Books as a kind of Zoloft for the status-anxiety-afflicted soul. By his lights, philosophy and novels serve as reminders. Of what? Of our own “true and irreducible” self; that there’s an honored history of dissent from the ideal of financial triumph; and, finally (cue organ music), that death will one day level us all. “It is the rich, the beautiful, the famous and the powerful,” he assures us, “for whom death has in store the cruellest lessons.” For Mr. de Botton, all literature is wisdom literature; and once committed to paper, anything from Matthew Arnold to Zadie Smith can be stripped down, reconditioned and sold off as a string of sage utterances. (That literature can be dark, ironic, prophetic, savagely ambivalent, or God forbid, funny, you’d never know.)

Which raises the question: How much real respect does Mr. de Botton display for the traditions he so solemnly invokes? The great Ruskin once fulminated at his contemporaries: “When you retire into inactive life, you may, as a subject of consolation for your declining years, reflect that precisely according to the extent of your past operations, your life has been successful in retarding the arts, tarnishing the virtues, and confusing the manners of your country.” Mr. de Botton summons him with: “Incensed by their wrongheaded prioritizing, John Ruskin excoriated nineteenth-century Britons … for being the most wealth-obsessed people in the history of the world.” Even the friendliest critic would admit this style is unliterary. It sounds vaguely philosophical-but only if you forget that philosophy has supported many idiosyncratic writing styles, from the engaging conversationalism of William James to the great, strange music of Schopenhauer and Nietzsche. Mr. de Botton’s prose reads like a sample translation from the World Esperanto Society. “Thesis,” he announces up front: “That the most profitable way of addressing [status anxiety] may be to attempt to understand and to speak of it.”

It is this penchant for philosophy that shows up how strangely unphilosophical a writer Mr. de Botton is. Philosophy starts with questions that lie at the edge of the ponderable. Are there only ideas, or things-in-themselves? If a lion could talk, would we understand him? Would it have been just for Gauguin to ditch wife and child had he been untalented? The lines Mr. de Botton draws are bright and easy, and tend to reaffirm homiletic truths; for example, we possess a private, dignified self, which our hunger for worldly recognition offends. Why not ask a hard question or two? Is Rawls right when he writes, “A rational individual is not subject to envy”? Is there such a thing as a natural aristocracy? (The idea has had lasting power: There are versions of it in Rousseau, Carlyle, Jefferson, T.S. Eliot and Virginia Woolf.) Is sending your kids to a private school no different-as some economists believe-from bequeathing them the family estate?

But the presence of irony or ambiguity only troubles the dispenser of wisdom. You’d never know it from his argument, but the literary masterworks Mr. de Botton promotes as cures for status anxiety were once status symbols themselves. They constituted the cultural capital of the (then new, now old) Anglo-European bourgeoisie, for whom universities were a cross between aristocratic finishing schools and gateways to the earliest professions. This vaguely Marxist-sounding argument has its roots, ambiguously, in Marx, who could not finally make up his mind about the value of great art, but has been taken to a literature-crushing extreme by Bourdieu and his acolytes in American English departments. Does telling the story this way rob a great book of its value, by regarding it merely as a status marker? Only if the story stays half-told. For there’s a bittersweet twist: Thanks to the vulgar love of money that Mr. de Botton so studiously deplores, the great books are now largely ignored by our economic elite. As a result, they have been forever untethered from their old, stuffy Oxbridgian associations.

For all its show of great and careful learning, Status Anxiety is ad hoc and sloppy. The author claims that the American Revolution “[i]n a stroke … transformed American society from a hereditary, aristocratic hierarchy … into a dynamic economy in which status was awarded in direct proportion to the (largely financial) achievements of each new generation.” In fact, the Bay Colonists had formed radical views on inheritance practices and hereditary authority while still in England. He gets Marx’s labor theory of value exactly wrong when he writes: “There was, for Marx, an inherently exploitative dynamic within the capitalist system, for employers would always try to hire workers for less than they made from selling their products, then would pocket the difference as ‘profit.'” (Marx didn’t believe an employer pocketed a little extra from the till. For Marx, prices were an abstraction, a total falsity; the only real value was the amount of human sweat it took to produce a commodity.) He treats Matthew Arnold like a rumor picked up around the water cooler when he reduces Culture and Anarchy to the bromide, “Great art [is] … an effective antidote for life’s deepest tensions and anxieties.”

Am I being picky? To misrepresent Marx, after having dropped his name in a show-offy way, is like carrying around a motorcycle helmet without actually owning the bike. It might get you the girl, but eventually she’ll want to go for a ride.

Yes, I find this book awful. Not only awful, but uniquely awful, because it is so dispiriting. A consumer society does in fact thrive on insecurity, and those facts of life that mitigate that insecurity (committed parents, small and livable communities, schools that actually educate, and a living civic and aesthetic tradition that points a person to a life of self-respect) are now under constant assault. To identify precisely the right problem, offer as a solution “the best which has been thought and said,” and then show so little real respect for the ideas and intellectual traditions under discussion-this only reaffirms the hopelessness which motivated the book in the first place.

Over the years, Mr. de Botton has largely gotten a free pass-he was young, mediagenic, presumably intelligent and devoted to elevated subjects. But he’s now honored, successful and routinely converts his books into TV programming for the old Beeb. (That explains the robotic voice: It’s the robotic voice-over.)

Reading and caring about an idea is different from putting a book on an altar, surrounding it with a glamorous fog, then scraping before it like it’s the ancestral totem. And above all, dear reader, do not mistake this scraping for humility, much less wisdom. Status Anxiety holds two messages for you, two messages only, and neither has anything to do with “the best which has been thought and said.” They are: In your fallible human bosom where desire now lies, there a snorey, blasé Old World self-importance should take its place . And consequently: Of the many media personalities now competing for your attention, dear viewer, know to esteem me, Alain de Botton, the highest .

Stephen Metcalf reviews books regularly for The Observer. Self-Help Prescription: A Double Dose of Culture